THE struggle between President Boris Yeltsin and opposition forces in the Russian parliament may dominate headlines. But struggles are also taking place in other newly-independent states - like Slovakia.
Unlike other countries of Central Europe, this fragile nation of 5 million has slipped from the path of democratic reform since Vladimir Meciar assumed the prime ministership in June 1992. Slovakia's fate under Meciar may provide a clue as to what lies in store for Russia if Mr. Yeltsin is defeated.
For the past 10 months, Mr. Meciar and his so-called Movement for a Democratic Slovakia party have pushed through a number of highly regressive policies, reversing earlier efforts to promote urgently needed political and market reforms. For example, they closed a leading opposition newspaper, barred new organizations from government press conferences, antagonized the large Hungarian minority in the country by requiring the removal of Hungarian-language signs, and canceled major deals to convert state ent erprises to private ownership. More ominously, they threatened a major confrontation with Hungary by diverting the Danube. Now a high-stakes political battle comparable to that in Moscow is being waged in Slovakia. At issue is whether opposition democratic forces will be able to resist Meciar's authoritarian impulses.
To many in Slovakia, a recent showdown between Meciar and Foreign Minister Milan Knazko, a member of the prime minister's party who had grown increasingly apprehensive about the impact of the regime's policies abroad, represented a critical test. Was it possible to restrain Meciar's attempts to consolidate all power? Not satisfied by the prospect that the Slovak constitutional tribunal, packed with loyalists, would uphold his authority to remove Mr. Knazko from office, Meciar risked a government crisis t o get rid of his new foe. He said he would resign unless the foreign minister were removed.
The tactic worked. After his dismissal Knazko said, "I became inconvenient because I did not have the same opinions, especially those of the prime minister." Knazko warned that "authoritarian ways of solving problems started to play a larger role in government."
Concerns about Meciar's autocratic tendencies are voiced by even his close associates. While the confrontation with Knazko was coming to a head, Ludovit Cernak, the Slovak economy minister and leader of a key party in Meciar's governing coalition, resigned. Mr. Cernak protested the state of the Slovak economy, which he likened to "a car running out of gas" and the naming of a communist general to head the defense ministry. As the chairman of the Slovak National Party, Cernak was the linchpin of an inform al coalition without which the prime minister and his party - with 74 legislators in the 150-member National Council, two votes short of a majority - could not have dominated the legislature. His warning about Meciar's creeping dictatorship can't be ignored.
It is too early to tell whether the coalition between Meciar and Cernak will be repaired, or whether the current fissure between the two parties will bring more democracy. One good sign is that the new Slovak president asked a number of pre-1989 era dissidents - persons cast aside by Meciar and subjected to intimidation - to advise him. Also, a new political party is being forged out of the ruins of the reform-minded Public Against Violence party and other opposition groups that had lost ground since the
The West must pay attention to fast-unfolding Slovak developments at this crucial juncture. For too long, this proud country and people have been cast as second-class citizens, even within the ranks of Eastern and Central Europe. This itself contributed to the politics of resentment that fueled Meciar's success. This is not to deny that Slovakia has had an unsavory history. Excesses in the Nazi era is something Slovakians must still come to terms with. But there is a small, remarkably dedicated and coura geous group of would-be reformers who earnestly seek to make Slovakia a more democratic, market-oriented society. They deserve the support and assistance of those on the outside.
As President Clinton and other Western leaders prepare a major initiative to support beleaguered Boris Yeltsin, it is critical we not lose sight of the need to bolster democratic forces elsewhere. The transition to democracy in other post-communist societies is hardly assured. To divert resources from small countries like Slovakia, where technical assistance and training have enormous impact in democratic efforts, is a terrible mistake.